Just over seven years ago, Hurricane Katrina and the social services failures in its aftermath struck New Orleans a devastating blow. Last November, Dirty Dozen Brass Band's lead trumpeter, Efrem Towns, was attacked by a dog outside his hotel room and suffered severe injuries from which he is still recovering. But just like the city that birthed them, the Dirty Dozen refuses to let misfortune bow their heads or slow them down. They can't, in fact — forward motion is the foundation of their legendary vitality.
"I ain't tryin' to deal with no rockin' chair," says Roger Lewis, who has been the Dirty Dozen's baritone sax man since 1977, the very beginning.
When Lewis' bandleader, R&B and rock legend Fats Domino, took an extended vacation in the mid-'70s, a friend recommended Lewis to fill a vacancy in a second-line brass band. The infectious thrill of the intricate, syncopated music, whose almost supernatural powers compel even the stodgiest listeners to dance, inspired Lewis to take a few music classes at Southern University in Baton Rouge. There he met like-minded Charles Joseph and Benny Jones, and soon the Dirty Dozen Brass Band was born.
"When you can make somebody move, get them on their feet and make their body do all kinds of strange things," says Lewis, "that's a lot of soul."
Besides the traditional hymns and marches, the group displayed a knack for incorporating jazz and popular R&B material into the brass band style. Their goal was simply to stir a crowd, but the decade-old boom in jazz's popularity, coinciding with the rise of jazz-rock fusion, was fading rapidly, with no fresh ideas in sight to take its place.
"We played this music [standards by Duke Ellington, Horace Silver and Nina Simone] where people could dance off it," says Lewis. "That kind of woke up the jazz community."
As their popularity grew, the DDBB found themselves at the center of a jazz revival: Within a few years, fellow New Orleans native Wynton Marsalis began winning Grammys for his work, and New York's Lincoln Center established its high-profile jazz series. Today, brass bands are in demand all over the world — not least of all the Dirty Dozen themselves, who have collaborated with artists as diverse as Widespread Panic, Elvis Costello and Norah Jones.
Over the course of the Dirty Dozen's career, a theme has emerged: The best way to carry on a tradition is to let new ideas breathe life into it. Their 2006 recording of Marvin Gaye's classic What's Going On is a complete reimagining, featuring guest vocalists from Chuck D to Bettye LaVette. The Dirty Dozen marked their 35th anniversary with a return to classic form on Twenty Dozen, their first recording for venerable jazz label Savoy. Sounding just as fresh as their reissued debut My Feet Can't Fail Me Now, Twenty Dozen features several songs that have long been staples of their live show. "Paul Barbarin's Second Line," the traditional "E-Flat Blues" and the unofficial New Orleans anthem "When the Saints Go Marching In" are all represented, as well as the Lewis-penned original "Dirty Old Man."
"Hell yeah, you better watch him, he gonna spank somebody," Lewis says, obviously relishing the reputation of one of the band's most requested numbers. All of the play-acting and sexual connotations are secondary in Lewis' estimation: He attributes the routine's long-lived popularity to its viscerally funky groove, which came about when he improvised a bass line and some lyrics to go with a riff the band had started. "We play music for your mind, body and soul, so we cover it all," says Lewis. "Whatever your groove is, you gon' find it. ... That has a lot to do with the longevity."
The DDBB was also featured in the HBO series Treme, helping carry New Orleans music into television. In Lewis' opinion, the show does a good job of balancing drama with a realistic representation of the city's culture. It also offers an opportunity to share local talent with an unprecedented audience: Besides Dirty Dozen, featured artists have included Trombone Shorty, Dr. John, Irma Thomas and sissy bounce artists Big Freedia and Sissy Nobby. Lewis estimates it may take as long as 30 years to recover fully from Katrina, but sounds hopeful about the rebuilding already under way. After all, he reminds us, "In New Orleans, the music don't stop." Why should anything else?